Australia’s policy on vaping – “it’s not about the science”

Posted on March 10, 2023 By Colin

THE VIEWS OF AUSTRALIA'S RESPECTED HEALTH AND MEDICAL ORGANISATIONS on vaping nicotine are out-of-step with leading organisations in other western countries.

Why does Cancer Council Australia oppose vaping, yet leading UK cancer charity Cancer Research UK strongly supports it? Why does the Australian Medical Association want harsh restrictions when the British Medical Association supports wider access?  Why is the Commonwealth Department of Health hostile to vaping when the New Zealand Ministry of Health and UK National Health Service encourage its uptake?

My interview on GFNTV. Impervious to evidence.
Tobacco control blocks vaping debate in Australia

Answer: it’s not about the science

Opposition to vaping is often based on underlying “values, ideology, politics and opinions” rather than straightforward disagreements about the scientific evidence”. [Klein 2022]

Klein says "like most scientific controversies, vaping debates are not about the science at all"

Opposition to vaping often masquerades as a dispute over evidence or a need for more research. However, it is frequently based on unstated biases, fears and self-interest including

“What is needed isn’t more or better science, but mechanisms to bring those hidden values to the forefront of the discussion so that they can be debated transparently” [Carolan 2008]

Rather than openly stating these unacceptable motivations, opposition is often framed as concerns about the risk to youth, as a ploy by Big Tobacco or as a threat to tobacco control, much of which is exaggerated or discredited. [Bates 2020]

Even advice from the Australia’s leading health and medical organisation, the National Health and Medical Research Council is misleading. A recent analysis of the NHMRC statement on vaping by eleven leading Australian and international tobacco addiction scientists in the scientific journal Addiction concluded it contained serious scientific flaws, misinformation and concerns about bias, and “fails to meet the standard expected of a leading national scientific body”.

Most reports in the mainstream media are alarmist, negative and unbalanced and exaggerate the risks of vaping. The media relies on clicks and reader engagement and is an unreliable source of information on vaping. [Wackowski 2017]

The same ideological and emotional arguments underly the opposition to other forms of harm reduction when first proposed e.g., needle exchange, opiate substitution therapy and pill testing. Eventually harm reduction prevails but often after many years of pointless debate and delay.

The precautionary principle

Many Australian organisations justify their opposition to vaping by evoking the ‘precautionary principle’, which states that we should wait until we have more information. [Morphett 2020]

The precautionary principle requires policymakers to compare the risks of introducing a product with the risks of delaying its introduction.

In the case of vaping the relatively small risks of harm will be outweighed by the far more substantial harms from delaying access to current smokers

The precautionary principle is used selectively to oppose vaping, but not for COVID vaccines and many other treatments.

Developing good policy

Policymakers should be aware that the advice of Australia’s leading medical and health authorities are often agenda-driven and should not be taken at face value

There are hidden ideological, moral, financial or other vested interests, even from apparently independent organisations. Policymakers should also not trust what they read in mainstream media.

We need to remember that the purpose of tobacco control is to save lives and reduce illness from smoking and to improve public health overall. All policy should be made through that lens.

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